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How Stephen King Teaches Writing

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Wouldn’t You Want to Learn From the Best?

Stephen King is a famous best selling American author of horror, science fiction and fantasy. He has sold more than 350 million copies of his books and many of them have been made into movies, tv series and comic books.

In this article, King recounts his years as a high school English teacher. He is interviewed by Jessica Lahey on grammar and explains why discovering great literature is like losing one’s virginity.

Check out the article below and maybe, like me, you’d wish Stephen King was your English high school teacher!

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Jessica Lahey: You write that you taught grammar “successfully.” How did you define “success” when you were teaching?

 

Stephen King:  Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

 

Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?

 

King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

 

Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?

 

King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

 

Jessica Lahey: In On Writing, you identified some phrases that should be excised from every writer’s toolbox: “At this point in time” and “at the end of the day.” Any new irksome phrases you’d be willing to share? (Mine’s “on accident.”)

 

King: “Some people say,” or “Many believe,” or “The consensus is.” That kind of lazy attribution makes me want to kick something. Also, IMHO, YOLO, and LOL.

 

Lahey: Great writing often resides in the sweet spot between grammatical mastery and the careful bending of rules. How do you know when students are ready to start bending? When should a teacher put away his red pen and let those modifiers dangle?

 

King: I think you have to make sure they know what they’re doing with those danglers, those fragmentary and run-on sentences, those sudden digressions. If you can get a satisfactory answer to “Why did you write it this way?” they’re fine. And—come on, Teach—you know when it’s on purpose, don’t you? Fess up to your Uncle Stevie!

 

 

Lahey: You have called informal essays “silly and unsubstantial things,” not at all useful for teaching good writing. What kinds of essay assignments are useful?

 

King: I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

 

Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?

 

King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.

 

Lahey: Do you think great teachers are born or do you think they can be trained?

 

King: Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn (some are pretty lazy). Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.

 

Lahey: You refer to writing as a craft rather than an art. What about teaching? Craft, or art?

 

King: It’s both. The best teachers are artists.

 

Article and Image Credit: The Atlantic

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